Emma became my favorite Jane Austen story the moment I was introduced to it. The Gwenyth Paltrow movie version has long been one of my favorites, and though it took me several watchings to appreciate it, the BBC version has also become a well-liked adaptation. And then, of course, there's the book itself- one that I've been re-reading for class this semester and loving every moment of. I've greatly enjoyed my British Novel class because of the discussions we're able to have about literature--though, in truth, it can be a little frustrating as well (because, I mean, if you don't love Mr. Knightley I just don't think we can be friends.)
I'm not sure why this book is my favorite. As much as I like her, I freely admit that Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen's more maddening heroines and I can't give Mr. Knightley all the credit for making me love the novel so. Then why do I adore it so much?
When it comes down to it, I think what I love about Emma is the close-knit society in which the characters exist. Highbury isn't a large town, and everyone seems to know everybody, at least by sight. There's a small circle of friends, family, and frenemies in a way that's not so different from my life, but different enough for me to yearn for its simplicity, and its absence of 24/7 news, politics, and Facebook rants. It seems cozy there, and comfortable. There's something about a small, old-fashioned English village that seems welcoming--a reason, perhaps, why my favorite Elizabeth Gaskell movie adaptation is Cranford--and when I'm reading Emma I feel like I've been enveloped in a warm blanket and set in front of the fire. (My long-neglected and abandoned etsy shop, in fact, bore the name of "Home To Highbury" as homage to one of my favorite fictional places) It's the only Jane Austen novel where the action doesn't move from place to place. There are no scenes in London, no trips to Bath, no excursions to the distant house of friends or distant relations. We might hear of events happening in those places, but all of the "on-screen" action happens in Highbury.
Like most Jane Austen novels, the problems of Emma are in some sense small. There are no explosions, no world-saving exploits, no fights against tyranny or examples of political intrigue. But maybe because it's so contained, so centered on a small group of people, is why it works so well. Everything that happens in the book is vitally important to the characters's lives. It delves into the emotions, misunderstandings, and mistakes that we all make. There is so much about the book that is appealing to me: the characters who are so distinct and yet are so familiar because we've met their counterparts in our everyday lives; the equally familiar but uncomfortable situations they get themselves into, and the promise of a happy ending. But for all its familiarity, it's still a form of escapism, too. I know that sometimes I get wearied from the world and all of its current problems: its immorality, its strife, its determination to reject all that is wholesome and good. Jane Austen's world was far from perfect, but Emma's idealistic one very nearly is, and we know that all of her problems will (eventually) resolve themselves.
When it comes down to it, visiting the unchanging world of Emma is a bit like coming home, where Mr. Woodhouse always has a bit of gruel set out for you, Miss Bates is as eager as ever to talk anyone's ear off about Jane Fairfax, and Mr. Knightley's sage advice is always a short walk away.
(Interestingly enough, it seemed like everybody on my Goodreads feed was reading or rereading Emma this past month or two. I wonder if we all decided to do so separately, or if we saw that others were reading it and thought it sounded like a good idea!)